Silent House review

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For a generation of viewers weaned on rapid-fire editing, there is power in the continuous shot. In that respect, Silent House aims high. Marketed as a continuous 88-minute shot, this horror film is, at the very least, an ambitious technical achievement.

The film opens with a high, overhead shot of Sarah (played by Elizabeth Olsen, earning her place as Secret Best Olsen™). Knowing it would be a continuous shot, I was already wondering how the camera would descend from its perch. Did the continuous shot start already? It had, and it swooped down to an intimate, over-the-shoulder view of the young Sarah, where it would remain for much of the rest of the film.

That opening shot is so powerful because it establishes the ambitions of the film. "Yes, we are really doing this, you can believe it now."

I stopped thinking about how they were doing it and started thinking about this girl and the eponymous Silent House. The house in question is an old summer home once used by her family, now fallen into disrepair. Together with her father and uncle, they intend to clean up the house and prepare it for sale.

For a man that has presumably given birth to Sarah, her father seems oddly insincere. You never get the impression that this is an established family unit, and the trio more often come off as a group of strangers. I want to believe this is intentional, but it seems more like the downside of making a film in one take. It takes a hell of an actor to get it right the first try, and of the three, only Olsen manages to pull it off.

This is pretty much Olsen's show anyway. The story so far is mostly pretense to get her character into a haunted house setting. The rest of the cast is quickly cast aside, and it becomes a film about Sarah surviving the bumps in the night. Silent House is transparent in this sense, as it gives the audience very little context. This is horror stripped down to its basics — darkness, mysterious noises, jump scares, and a beautiful, terrified girl showing just enough cleavage to keep things interesting.

Keeping things simple can be good, but without much of a story or conflict to chew on, a lot of the tension-building moments feel like a waste of time. We're never given a good reason to care about Sarah, so when the film stops to simmer and boil up to the next big scare, it's easy to get impatient. 

When the scares come they are pretty effective, if not cliché. Creepy little girls and big scary men are not unique in the horror toolbox, but the immediacy of the camera work makes them potent sources of terror. If Silent House combined its cinematography with some inspired frights, it could have been brilliant. As it stands, I'm hoping someone else steals the idea and makes a better movie with it.

When Sarah flashes a Polaroid camera in total darkness, you have to wonder if the film-makers are cheating. There are many opportunities for clever editing, and I suspect that Silent House wasn't truly filmed in a single take. Does it matter? Not really, but film buffs may get a bit distracted.

Eventually the nonsensical horror hits a high point, with toilets hanging from walls and bathtubs filled with beer bottles and blood. The plot of Silent House is revealed in the last few minutes of the film and quickly wrapped up. It hits like a tornado of absurdity, blasting away any logic the film was clinging to. 

With impressive technical ambitions and a talented lead actress, Silent House has the framework for a classic work of horror — if only it had anything else going for it. Silent House makes a good first impression, but it tries its best to wash away those memories before the credits roll.

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Joe Donato Video games became an amazing, artful, interactive story-driven medium for me right around when I played Panzer Dragoon Saga on Sega Saturn. Ever since then, I've wanted to be a part of this industry. Somewhere along the line I, possibly foolishly, decided I'd rather write about them than actually make them. So here I am.
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